Writ large on banners flanking the monumental staircase of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, the West African greeting of “Bonne arrivée” welcomed the first guests Tuesday to the exhibition of the same name. It will run through Sept. 5.
Part of the Africa 2020 initiative, a cultural program initiated by France’s president Emmanuel Macron to highlight pan-African projects, “Bonne Arrivée — Métiers d’Art Africains, Design Contemporain” was imagined as a showcase for the African continent’s rich artisanal and design heritage, ranging from furniture to fashion.
The words “métiers d’art” were essential, explained Youssouf Fofana, who curated the exhibition and is the cofounder of Les Oiseaux Migrateurs, an association aiming to support the development of small and medium-sized enterprises in Senegal, and of buzzy French fashion label Maison Château Rouge.
Taking pride of place in the central atrium are designs ranging from century-old pottery and traditional furniture carved out of wood, to industrial-looking chairs made from upcycled military material and of course, fashion designs.
Representing Africa’s new fashion wave are labels such as Senegalese brand Tongoro, Nigerian brand Bloke and Cameroon’s Imane Ayissi, which shows on Paris’ couture schedule. There’s 2019 LVMH Prize winner Thebe Magugu, too, who is also starring in Le Bon Marché’s Porte-Bonheurs fall exhibition. All were selected for their involvement in sustainability and use of circular economy principles.
“Objects are at the heart of the exhibition because it’s through them that designers and craftspeople transmit their cultural heritage, but also [perpetuate] it by transforming their craft in light of the present and what they are experiencing in the moment,” said Fofana, pointing out the example of upcycling that has long been part of design practices across the continent.
In the wings, satellite exhibits showcase individual crafts through installations featuring video segments and further examples of finished items. One such focus was on Tunisian designers Anissa Meddeb, Emna Gahbiche, Hedi Saad, Chems Eddine Mechri and Asma Haj Romdhane, who were selected through Creative Tunisia, an initiative preserving artisanal crafts and design in the country and supported by the United Nations’ Industrial Development Organization.
“When it is made by African craftspeople, some don’t understand why items can be expensive. But [the level of the crafts] is the same as when Dior or Chanel calls upon specialist ateliers,” said Fofana, standing in front of an exhibit on Kenté, a Ghanaian fabric made of handwoven strips of silk and cotton, and here shown in the form of wall coverings, traditional garments and also in recent designs by Wales Bonner and Loewe.
“We wanted to highlight design and fashion [from the African continent]. Our heritage isn’t a trend, so being able to show the contribution of African heritage — sometimes stolen, sometimes not attributed — is incredible for us,” said Fofana.
To extend the journey for visitors, QR codes point to information pages curated by the team at Les Oiseaux Migrateurs, while a series of conferences and podcasts have been organized in collaboration with independent researcher Marie-Yemta Moussanang.